The Revelation Project: Living with Grief
MJ Yeager Rudd is a remarkable woman. Like all of the women we’ve been honored to photograph I continue to marvel at the powerful impact of this project. I never dreamed that the original afternoon of the project's accidental conception (as Robyn and I played around with our camera's intent to capture each other on film in our own silly way) that it would lead to such a revelationary journey that had the power to touch women so very deeply and unexpectedly, and that it would further unify them in what I believe has become an incredibly powerful and important conversation. Who are we?
My initial experience of MJ was that she seemed.... well, kind of detached. This particular photo shoot struck me (as a photographer) in a different way than the other women I'd photographed so far. Not knowing anything of her story or not having previously collected her interview I wondered and worried if we would "get" anything for her through the process. I worried extensively that out of all the women we’ve worked with, that somehow the project just was not resonating with her, and we’d failed her. Little did I know.
She sent in her interview just the other night as an excerpt and insight into her her life and how The Revelation Project has impacted her. I thought this interview was incredibly vulnerable, and honest. I wanted to share it with her permission on Parentables because I wondered if her story of courage might impact others as much as it did me.
The Interview: (You can view our other interviews here.)
TRP: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
MJ: There’s a little more than a little: My name is MJ and I am 56 years old. I was born in Pittsburg PA. I earned a degree in art and travelled to LA in 1979 to work for Mattel Toys in the International Packaging Division with 40 other art directors. It was such an amazing experience and an all around great time but I got bored after five years! The weather was always nice there and I missed the seasonal change so I fell in love with someone in NYC. I packed my bags, burned my bridges and moved into a new apartment with my new boyfriend who then summarily broke up with me.
I hit the pavement running with my broken heart, immersing myself in the glamorous world of Conde Naste Magazine Publishing and rubbed elbows with more famous people than I’d ever laid eye’s on. NYC was a great experience even though I was violently raped in Central Park in 1986. I was walking home alone from a party one winter evening, and it was sudden, violent, and shocking. The reason I believe I survived and was able to move on in my life was through the tremendous people in my community: police force, social workers, and medics who helped me through that time. There was incredible support, financial compensation, and the people I worked with at the time even pooled their money together to send me home to recover. I realized then what people are really made of- when you are really in need, hurt, and alone- how people really come together to help. That made more of an positive impression on me than the negativity of the violence itself.
TRP: What is the biggest challenge that’s ever faced you as a woman?
MJ: The rape was nothing compared to the double loss of my life partner. The grief process I am involved in now has by far been the most agonizing experience I have had to bear. My husband had asked me for a divorce after a 20 year marriage, and although this was devastating we remained close and continued our remarkable friendship. Six months later, he died suddenly of a massive cardiac arrest. He was 49 years old. Our daughter found him lying on the floor at his home a little over a year ago. It was too late.
I’m never sure what I grieve more- the crumbled marriage or how much I actually miss him in my life. The trauma from this event has left me grappling with what I am pretty sure has been PTSD. I’ve had my share of trauma in my life but I’ve really felt a level of loss, and vulnerability, and loneliness like this. My daughter and I were left to define our world without him, and this has been incredibly hard. I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore. I can’t hide behind a marriage, a career, or a distraction. What I experience now- is what I can only explain as rawness all the time. I know however, that his passing has presented me an opportunity for growth, and most of all the opportunity for self love. If I do not find love for myself first I really have very little to offer the world. To accept myself 100% unconditionally- that is my challenge. I feel this challenge day by day but I know that I am on my way there.
In the grande scheme of life I believe this is everyone’s work. The difference is that I have been force fed the process. The temptation to numb myself with alcohol, or “check out” with something is great. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life- but I am doing it with the help of so many amazing women, friends, and professionals. At the end of the day though, it’s all up to me. Even though I am surrounded by the most wonderful people -the face I have to look at each morning is mine, and the person I must show the most love, compassion, and tenderness for - is me.
TRP: You mentioned your daughter...
MJ: Yes. My daughter Shannon is 16 and has started driving - not only a car , but me- a little bit crazy. We are great friends. She was a science project that worked. I was pre-menopausal when I tried to conceive and - we did not think it was going to happen.
TRP: What are some of the issues that you think are important to explore as it relates to our gender?
MJ: I think the #1 thing is to keep at least one foot in some sort of career or an interest that you can keep active in - just for you. This keeps women alive and engaged with others. I regret that I did not keep myself more active as a mom. I kind of let motherhood take over. I got LOST as a person- which is part of the issue now. Striking the balance of maintaining a sense of self. Before you are married or a parent, you should be you, independent and self aware and keep working that angle while blending that with the amazing gift of parenthood and partnership. My suggestion is to create a hybrid. Do both, if you can.
TRP: What’s your idea of a great “girls night?”
MJ: Probably just a small intimate group, great food and conversation.
TRP: Is there anything in particular that made you feel like being part of the Revelation Project was a good idea right now?
MJ: Primarily because I was lucky enough to have Robyn Ivy photograph our family a few years before the divorce. It seemed like a no brainer to involve myself in The Revelation Project when I heard she was doing it, and what it stood for. There was some deep need in me to see myself visually. I think subconsciously I wanted to see if my loss was reflected in my photograph. I ached to make sure I looked intact from the outside... if even on the outside.
TRP: What did you think about the approach of the upcoming photo shoot (before you got there) and what were the results you were expecting?
MJ: I was a bit nervous prior to but I am generally pretty comfortable in front of the camera it was a great way to get out of my own head and let two amazing women fuss over me- it’s all good!
TRP: How did you feel during the shoot and was there anything in particular that made you feel more or less relaxed or open to the process?
MJ: Initially a little nervous - it did not take long once we started with props, makeup and outfits to relax into a realm of unreality, and play with the time- let go. I used it as an escape. Perhaps that’s different from how most women experience it. It was hours of relief from... the grief , an opportunity for something OTHER THAN the raw emotion I feel day to day. I got to escape.... and the results make me realize I can do this.
TRP: Can you describe in three words the way you felt before we shot?
MJ: Nervous, excited, anticipatory.
TRP: Three words for after?
MJ: Joy, acceptance, anticipatory
TRP: Three words for when you saw the results
MJ: Insight, happiness, completion
TRP: After you left but before you saw the results - did you have any thoughts about the experience? What were some of the things you thought about on the drive home?
MJ: To be honest I did not really ponder how the images were going to come out. I knew they would be what they were... I was excited ultimately to see who I would be reflected in those photographs... but let it all go and then i jumped right back into the grid of my life...until I saw them.
TRP: When you saw the results can you tell me your first impression?
MJ: I was blown away- and that’s when the tears came. My daughter saw them first and called me immediately. We were both very moved ( we are so very close).
It was almost like a relief to see that on the outside I am really beautiful and I appear to look ok on the outside. On the inside I may feel like hamburger, with holes in it, but what that tells me when i see myself is that on some level- my heart is coming through. I look ok, and so therefore I am ok.... intact.
I check in first thing with myself every morning - to make sure I am still here. Even though we have a physical manifestation of our bodies, it has NOTHING to do what’s going on inside. That neither the outside or the inside - can never tell the whole part of the story.
I AM INTACT. From the outside- In spite of how I feel inside- That was my revelation. The photo’s brought home the message that I AM OK.
I WILL survive this.
TRP: Can you talk about the feedback you received from those who saw your photographs?
MJ: Well- I sometimes feel like a celebrity because people find me and say “wow- those pictures are amazing MJ!” It’s really funny because now I am part of this movement you guys started. People are finding me from my past life- high school saw images of me looking amazing... people I barely knew are coming out of the woodwork to comment... It’s really kind of intriguing. I think I look better with age! It’s kind of cool.
TRP: Did you learn anything new about yourself from the experience?
MJ: I learned that I really do love my black cowboy boots, and that it felt good to trust myself in what could be a fairly intimidating scenario.
TRP: Did you feel empowered? Why? Why not?
MJ: Yes. Definitely. When you were photographing me- I felt like I was a special piece of art that was soon to be revealed.
TRP: Since the shoot happened lasting impact of the experience? Has it altered the way you view yourself or your surroundings?
MJ: I will say that if I was vain to begin with I might become even more vain because I find myself looking at the images quite a lot. It’s such a helpful reminder, what the heck- if you are going to be here physically that you might as well look good.
Remember I told you Robyn photographed me before the loss? The difference between the photo shoots are remarkable. Big pieces of ME came through to the surface of these photographs- those pieces of myself were not even evident to me then...
TRP: Do you think it's relevant for other women? Why?
MJ: It’s only relevant if they are ready to be revealed. Maybe the only way you can know if you are ready is to “just do it” try it, and see what happens.
TRP: How would you use the photos moving forward? Professionally? Personally? As gifts?
MJ: I just use them as an inspiration, a grounding... They ground me a little bit.... they’ve been helpful to me throughout this process.
TRP: What is your favorite song and why?
MJ: Bob Dylan “Make feel my love” and Adel- I love her music.
TRP: If you could sum up the experience what would you say?
MJ: I would say that it may have been among the top most enriching and healing processes I engaged in this year.
TRP: If someone were on the fence about doing it is there anything you would tell them about the experience or say to encourage them?
MJ: Just do it.
The Revelation Project: The "It" Girl is You
The Revelation Project: How a Photograph Reminded Me of Who I Am
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